Comparison of how left arm pain from a heart attack feels vs. from a muscle problem…
“When people feel pain in their left arm, they are often worried that it could be a sign of a heart attack,” says Nichole M. Polin, MD, FACC, Director, Cardio-Oncology Clinic, Ochsner Health System.
“The pain can be more confusing if orthopedic issues are also present such as arthritis of the shoulder or neck or a rotator cuff injury,” continues Dr. Polin.
“Typically, if a person is having a heart attack, pain in the left arm would not be the only symptom.
“More often, this pain would also be associated with a pain or discomfort in the chest, excessive sweating, nausea, weakness or shortness of breath.
“Musculoskeletal pain is usually reproducible with motion and palpation [pressing on the area with your fingers] and would not be associated with the above symptoms.”
The feeling in the left arm from a heart attack is often described by patients as a “shooting pain.”
It’s sudden and intense, and may have a burning quality to it.
However, pain of a muscular origin would not be shooting or burning, nor would it suddenly streak down the arm while you’re at rest and not even using the arm – unless it is a muscle spasm.
And in that case, the spasm likely would be more focal rather than involving the entire arm.
A muscle spasm can be sudden and attention-getting, but it often lasts just seconds or less. A spasm may recur every few minutes and go on like this for a while.
Left arm pain from a heart attack would not behave this way.
A pinched nerve in the neck, too, can cause a sudden sharp pain in the arm, but there would also likely be tingling or numbness with it.
Dr. Polin is board certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine, ABIM – cardiovascular disease, ABIM – interventional cardiology and certification board of nuclear cardiology. ochsner.org/services/heart-vascular-services
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical, fitness and cybersecurity topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer.